As the third generation of West Indian descent, dancehall and reggae have been a predominant part of my life. From artists such as beany man to bounty killer, the music resonates not only because it represents who I am but as a constant reminder of the struggle and poverty faced in the Caribbean that ultimately lead my grandparents to migrate to the UK to give their children and grandchildren a better shot at life. Almost all music genres have been influenced by another genre in some way or another, Jazz, for example, is probably at the core of most modern music genres it’s influence surpasses any music genre to date. Dancehall however steamed from the Jamaican sounds of ska and mento and then infused this with the American sounds of Jazz and RnB. It also took great influence from reggae and the roots style which developed throughout the 1970’s. However currently if you turn on the radio you probably will be able to find the artificially induced baseline over some meaningless melody or phrase readapted from a dancehall classic. Since the release of Rhianna’s hit “work,” there has been no stopping the wave of watered down or ‘pop dancehall’ that has been hitting the mainstream airways. From Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” to Drake’s “Controlla”. The essence of Dancehall is captured by the spirit the music, artists are unapologetic whether it’s about the struggle, the street cred or sexual conquests the music has an element of realism, it ultimately deals with real issues. One could infer this current genre of ‘pop dancehall’ is essentially missing the cultural context and realism that is such an integral part of dancehall genre.
In this essay, I intend to explore whether the rise of dancehall in the charts is an ode to the genre or simply another example of the capitalistic society we live in taking a sacred part of a particular culture and utilising it for economic gain. I also intend to deconstruct the genre of dancehall through the symbolism used throughout. When analysing this new wave of dancehall, one must first identify the production of the genre, as mentioned previously there are artist’s such as beanie man, busy signal and Mr. Vegas who were trailblazers in the dancehall movement with popular songs such as “who am I” who have never had as much commercial success as a drake or a Rhianna. As Karl Marx’s points out with his theory of commodity fetishism the appearance of goods hides who made them and how they were made”. By Justin Bieber producing a dancehall sounding track like “sorry” it’s more than just a catchy pop track as essentially it is having a significant impact on the culture of dancehall. The song essentially fails to capture the true spirit of dancehall as the song’s lyrics are those of which typically follow the formulae of pop track exploring the theme with a catchy chorus and repetition, however, the beat contains elements of dancehall. Take Tanto Metro and Devonte’s “everyone falls in love sometimes although the chorus is catchy the verse still has the raw explicitness of dancehall. However, Justin Bieber as well as many other pop stars who utilise elements of dancehall often fail to acknowledge or pay homage to the four founders of dancehall even though they were essentially the driving force behind the genre we know and love today, thus failing to give any context of how the genre was created.
Another major issue with this reproduction of the dancehall genre is the impacts for the original dancehall artists, as previously mentioned many Jamaican artists utilise dancehall to tell their stories but as a way of achieving financial freedom. The 90’s saw artists like Beenie Man, Shabba Ranks, and Super Cat introduce dancehall to the mainstream world for the first time. As the genre has grown in popularity with artists like Sean Paul with hits such as “baby boy” in the early 2000’s to the more recent success in 2016, with full-blown mainstream artists such as drake sampling the sound it is becoming increasingly harder for artists in the Caribbean (where the sound was originally created) to compete with the American artist. One could infer the culture of dancehall has been significantly appropriated to rebrand and appeal to white America but more importantly, it has been used as it is a very lucrative genre of music throughout the early 90’s to the current day. Due to the rebellious historical context of dancehall, it is almost ironic that the poster child for what some may call the resuscitation of the dancehall genre is a Justin Bieber (a living emblem of the American dream) or a Major Lazer. This could be considered problematic as not only is it dismissing the culture and what it stands for but now it is also being whitewashed and accredited to artists who have no true understanding behind the movement and culture of dancehall. Unfortunately, it has become apparent that there is a certain formula to achieve commercial success through dancehall, thus forcing some of the most well-known and respected dancehall artists to try to distance themselves from the explicit and patois packed roots of dancehall to incorporate “light patois” into their music and explore themes of a more tamed nature. This is essentially where economic success begins to impact and stifle creativity. The economy ultimately impacts every industry it is through the economic value of a genre, trend, song etc. Which deems a cultural product relevant or not, this ultimately limits and sometimes even stifles creativity as artists no longer want to create because they are inspired but with the intention for the masses or what they think will be marketable and ultimately create economic value. “Popular music the end product of a production line where everything sounds similar.” (strinati 2004:58-60)
This leads to the theory from the Frankfurt school essentially developed the idea Marxist idea of high and low art which essentially distinguished forms of art based on the social environment of their audience. Ultimately when an art form is in its purest form, creative and original it considered cultured. However, as soon as it is mass produced mainstream and experienced by the masses the originality and essence of that culture has been lost as it is no longer exclusive thus making it “low culture. One could apply this to the musical genre of dancehall in its purest form is when the genre had the most significance and substance however now that it has been mass produced and become a mainstream genre it has almost devalued in terms of its message and what it was set about to convey. Although a valid point, one could also infer that every genre must evolve, by the culture of dancehall being mass produced it allows the culture to reach the masses as an artist surely you would want your content to be experienced by as many people as possible. It could also be suggested that although the recent representation of dancehall may not align with the original themes of the genre it doesn’t take away or devalue the genre. As previously mentioned this new wave of dancehall is very divergent from the traditional sound of dancehall but also it is the images, the signs, and symbolism that is different. When thinking about the genre of dancehall there are certain expectations we associate with the genre whether it’s the location of the tropical or sexually explicit words the genre definitely
pertains expectations. However, as these images, symbols, and signs we associate with dancehall change so does our perception of the genre. where the aesthetic content is always changing, how is the value of any particular object secured in order to extract value from it? Entwistle (2002) This could cause concern as dancehall is a part of black culture and thus raises concern about the cultural production of Black communities repackaged and commodified from non-Black ones.
Ultimately music is supposed to evolve and although there are pop artists who have achieved chart-topping success by utilising elements of the dancehall genre there are also many dancehall artists who have achieved great success independently whilst staying true to the original sound of dancehall. As we live in a capitalistic society we are taught to capitalise on whatever we can and it is not surprising that art and ultimately culture is often commodified for economic value. No music genre is exclusive all genres have been influenced by one another from jazz to rock n roll even dancehall was a mashup of genres to begin with. However, there are many dancehall artists having to compete for recognition not only in their own country but now with this new epidemic of pop dancehall they are having to compete with artists who are more popular with access to more resources, and artists who are ultimately willing to poach aspects of the dancehall identity to fuse into the creation of their sound. On top that they gain recognition for carrying the torch of dancehall, despite the fact they barely understand or acknowledge the historical context of the genre but also perpetuate the eradication of the originators of the genre and everything it once stood for. Musical evolution is inevitable but it would be nice to see a shift in the representation of this new age of dancehall. Where the genre is correctly presented and credited in a way that doesn’t just feel like there simply utilising the culture because it’s a current trend and then disregarding it when the buzz dies down.